Not too many kids say they want to grow up to be a blimp builder. But ever since Igor Pasternak was a teen-ager in Lvov, Ukraine, he had an obsession with those lighter-than-air machines that float gracefully through the sky.
“It is definitely some mental problem,” Pasternak joked in his accented English.
The blimp obsession stuck with him through the years, and now it is finally paying off. The Federal Aviation Administration has given preliminary approval to his four-passenger Aeros 40B, a 143-foot-long blimp, for passenger service in the United States. That will make Worldwide Aeros Corp. one of the few companies in the U.S. that builds passenger blimps.
“It has been a long time working on this,” said the 35-year-old engineer, who founded his U.S. company in 1992.
Time is only one element; the road to this point has been arduous and tinged with personal tragedy.
When Pasternak came to the United States in the early 1990s, he came with his father, Anatoly, a civil engineer, and his sister, Marina, also an engineer. Both were an integral part of his company.
But in late January, Marina, 32, and engineer Levon Samamyam, 35, were killed while working on the Aeros 40B at San Bernardino International Airport, where the FAA tests are being conducted. The pair was smothered to death while patching punctures inside the blimp.
The accident has cast a pall over the soon-to-be celebrated success in getting the blimp approved by the FAA. But Pasternak and his workers, many of them from the former Soviet Union, are determined to go forward with the memory of the two engineers in their hearts.
Coming to America
The roots of Pasternak’s company go back to 1986 when the young engineer started a venture called Aeros Co. in the former Soviet Union.
The company was quite successful, selling tethered blimps and balloons to companies in Russia and Europe that used them for advertising, air monitoring, photography and surveillance. The company expanded, establishing six branches in Bulgaria, Poland, Germany, Canada and the Czech Republic.
One of Pasternak’s biggest clients was the former Soviet government, which used the tethered blimps, or aerostats, to measure air quality around Chernobyl following the nuclear power disaster, among other things.
When the Soviet Union began to collapse in the early 1990s and it became harder to do business, Pasternak and his family moved to the United States to keep their enterprise going. They were in New York for a few months when they were encouraged by the administration of former California Gov. Pete Wilson to move their business to the decommissioned Castle Air Force Base in Atwater.
With $500,000 of their own money and a $400,000 Small Business Association loan, Igor and his family launched the blimp and aerostat manufacturing business with the same zeal they practiced in the former Soviet Union.
While they spent years working on FAA approval for their four-passenger blimp, they were able to sell other products overseas. Three of their smaller blimps, two-seat Aeros 40As, were sold to Chinese companies that used them for advertising. Recently, Worldwide Aeros sold a four-passenger Aeros 40B to a Chinese distributor of TVs and VCRs for $2 million.
They have also sold about 20 aerostats, or tethered blimps, to companies that use them for advertising, photography, camera surveillance and air monitoring.
In 1996, Pasternak moved his company to the San Fernando Valley to be closer to business sources and clients. Last year, he and Fred Edworthy formed Aeros Flightcam Inc. to sell aerostats with camera or radar equipment to be used by broadcast companies or the military.
With so much expansion going on, Worldwide Aeros recently relocated to a 21,000-square-foot space in Canoga Park where there is enough room to manufacture the blimps.
Inside the boxy warehouse next to the brightly colored offices, the manufacturing crew uses computers to cut long strips of seven-ply nylon that are sewn together to make the balloon portion of the blimp. Aluminum and plastic are shaped to form the gondola that carries four passengers and one pilot.
With imminent FAA approval, the company has the parts ready to make four more blimps.
Already, one Aeros 40B has been sold to Airship USA, a Las Vegas venture, which will use the blimp to advertise everything from wrestling to suntan lotion in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Diego.
“There is no limit to what our market will be. Dot-coms are big targets for blimp advertisements,” said Grant Murray, president of Airship USA, which will charge $15,000 to $30,000 a day for advertising. “Our business target is to buy five blimps.”
Worldwide Aeros also has orders pending for 12 more blimps: two in the United States, one in Brazil and another in Germany.
“There is huge demand for airships,” Igor Pasternak noted.
But Pasternak’s company won’t stop with its new four-passenger blimp. The company is designing a blimp that can carry up to 28 passengers for use in the tourist industry.
And the crew is working on a dream that Igor has been developing since he was an engineering student. He wants to design and build a heavy-lift cargo blimp that would be able to carry up to 125 metric tons to remote areas of the world.
You could say the company has high-flying plans.